Note 3: The status of music in Soviet Russia

Solomon Volkov's observation on the "logocentricity" of Russian culture is true in the sense that Russia is unusually biased to literature compared with other European countries, even allowing for the fact that (language being the basic coinage of human exchange) all countries with any history of literacy regard books as the backbone of their culture. In Russia, centuries of censorship have charged the word, written or spoken, with an oracular power recognised and honoured alike among the intelligentsia, artistic and scientific, as well as (in more demotic forms) among "the people". There is no equivalent of this "word-mystical" literature-worship anywhere elsewhere in Europe.

On the other hand, the split between the central literary tradition in Russia and its other creative outlets -- music, ballet, the visual arts -- is not necessarily very much more extreme than in Western Europe or America. It's rare, for example, to find anyone, in whatever country, with a deep interest in literature and comparably intense interests in music, dance, or art -- let alone all of these. Most people are drawn to one form of artistic expression to the relative exclusion of the others; and, because of the cultural dominance of language, the preponderant speciality in most cultures will be literature. Such is the case in Russia, the effect being accentuated by the quasi-mysticial significance which Russians attach to the word. Yet this is compensated by the serious and soulful way in which Russians approach their arts in general. (The average educated Russian was once conspicuously more "arts aware" than the average educated citizen of other countries; less so nowadays.)

Oddly enough, poets are rarely musical in any country or culture. The logocentricity of Brodsky, as cited by Volkov, is probably typical of the average writer, let alone of the average poet. This being so, it's not unusual that he should think little of Shostakovich. On the other hand, generational factors must be taken into account. Poets of Brodsky's generation were less widely cultured than, for example, those of the "Silver Age", in which literary people were brought up to admire art, dance, opera, song, and instrumental music as well as the products of their own very rich literary tradition. For example, Pasternak was deeply interested in Chopin and Scriabin. (The "Scriabin cult", indeed, crossed most genre barriers in Russian art during the fifteen years immediately after his death.) Likewise, Bulgakov took what appears to have been a genuine interest in Shostakovich's music. As for Anna Akhmatova, she not only lived for a while with the composer Arthur Lourié, whose music she never ceased to praise, but also voiced an exalted view of Shostakovich's music, impressing her literary colleagues with her willingness, in his case, to elevate the significance of music over literature during the Soviet period. As for the Russian musical community, its members were, by and large, never in doubt of Shostakovich's eminence in mid-century Russian music. Their proclivity for living within their own aesthetic ethos -- as divorced from the sensibility and repertoire of allusion enjoyed by poets like Brodsky as his world was from theirs -- represents a contrast which, in Russia, would naturally be felt more markedly than elsewhere. In essence, though, the same mutual incomprehension obtains in other countries, where literary people are as certain that writers are the keepers of the cultural flame as musical people believe in the pre-eminence of composers and visual people worship painters and sculptors.

As for SV's subsequent observations about Shostakovich's place in "the intellectual debate" within the USSR, this phrase is somewhat misleading.

Insofar as the democratic West would comprehend an intellectual debate, nothing of the kind existed under Soviet rule. On the one hand, there was, within the artistic Unions, limited discussion of the principles and prescriptions of Socialist Realism (in respect of how far writers, artists, composers, etc, could be said, at any given time, to be fulfilling these). On the other hand, within the private world of the dissident intelligentsia there was almost equally limited discussion of what little work of worth managed to squeeze past the Soviet censors (or, later, of what manuscripts happened, currently, to be in samizdat circulation). Since literature, drama, and cinema were the most heavily censored genres in the Soviet aesthetic spectrum, there was, in practical reality, not much in the way of contemporary work for writers to "debate". Indeed, there were neither many writers nor consumers of literature around to "debate" it, thousands of these being sent to the Gulag. Independent literature during the Soviet era was not so much under siege as virtually annihilated. Little wonder that, in those years, the Russian literary community was too inward-looking to notice activity in the other arts.

Far fewer musicians and composers went to the camps, partly because Stalin's arts watchdogs valued music for its propaganda power (a function which could not, as in Socialist Realist literature, be usurped by untrained hacks), and partly because non-vocal music could be subversive without betraying itself to the Soviet censors. The fact that Shostakovich meant little to most Soviet writers chiefly signifies that, in general terms, writers are interested in writing, musicians in music (and ordinary citizens in neither). Shostakovich's temporary "promotions" as a result of Stalin's orchestrated attacks on him indicate the significance which music held for the dictator (whose contempt for all but a handful of "inspired" writers was no secret). Yet these "promotions" raised Shostakovich's profile in no discernible "debate". What actually happened was that the Soviet media conferred on him a passing notoreity in the eyes of the broad public -- a notoreity, moreover, which soon passed (and which, with the exception of deeper minds in the literary community such as Akhmatova and Pasternak, made no more impression on the country's writers than upon the country's workers and peasants).

We must, furthermore, bear in mind that Shostakovich's name and work was, from time to time, deliberately and thoroughly suppressed so far as the general public was concerned. I have encountered educated Russians who only vaguely recognise Shostakovich's name as a result. For instance, when I asked an otherwise intelligent Russian what she knew of him, she replied, "Wasn't he that composer whom the West made a fuss of and who emigrated there?" Within the world of Soviet music, of course, the story was different: Shostakovich was seen as the only artist doing consistently truthful and honest work of greatness during the Stalin epoch. (See Akhmatova's verdict, below.) Yet even the perspectives of the Russian musical community were subject to generational discontinuities and distortions brought about by changes in the official cultural line. Vera Volkova, a music student at the Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) conservatory in the early 1960s, records that the city's Shostakovich festival in 1964 revealed a composer hitherto largely hidden to her and her young contemporaries by the post-1948 ban on his work (a ban slower to be lifted in the provinces than in Moscow and Leningrad):

"Our young heads were at that time thoroughly indoctrinated by the official propaganda which constantly harped on the 'formalistic deviations' in [Shostakovich's] work. As for his music, we knew only several cheerful marches, songs, and overtures. Suddenly a world of unforeseen, irresistible musical beauty and unprecedented intensity of feeling was flung open for us. People were crying at the festival concerts, for the first time perceiving without prejudice or doubt the tragic revelations of the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh symphonies. Liberated from prohibition, Shostakovich's music became a symbol of the severe truth of our time..."
None of this detracts from Shostakovich's claim to have been the greatest artist in any genre to have worked under the Soviet dispensation. Certainly no contemporary writer, painter, or film-maker can remotely rival him in the scale, quality, and outspokenness of his creative achievements (and not simply because no writer, painter, or film-maker enjoyed the creative opportunities to attempt to match him). If many Russians knew and know little about him, that merely reflects the fact that art music, in any culture, embodies the interests of a relatively small part of the population. Ask the average British citizen about Benjamin Britten, a composer who worked in complete creative freedom, and you will receive no more informed or impressed a response.--I.M.

The following is a slightly edited version of Appendix 2 of The New Shostakovich.

Akhmatova, Shostakovich, and the 'Seventh'

There is no doubt that Shostakovich greatly admired Akhmatova as an artist. A portrait of her hung in his Moscow apartment and, in Testimony (p. 274), he acknowledges his regard for her work, making special mention of Requiem and the "incomparable" late verse of her last decade, 1955-66. Equally certain is that Akhmatova was fascinated by Shostakovich. Much affected by his Fifth Symphony, which she first heard during the late Thirties, she thought sufficiently highly of him to have inscribed the 1958 Soviet selection of her verse To Dmitri Dmitryevich Shostakovich, in whose epoch I lived on earth. Indeed, so intense was her interest in his art that it occasionally claimed precedence over enquiries from devotees about her own. The scholar and translator Peter Norman recalls that, while visiting Akhmatova at Komarovo in 1964, his conversation with her was halted when the poet Anatoli Naiman arrived with a tape of new pieces by Shostakovich which she insisted on hearing immediately. (These were the Ninth and Tenth Quartets, premiered in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet on 20th November 1964 and brought to Komarovo by Galina Shostakovich's husband Yevgeny Chukovsky. According to Anatoli Naiman, Akhmatova and her circle listened to the quartets "repeatedly, day after day".) As for the composer himself, he records that Akhmatova regularly attended his premieres and (somewhat to his embarrassment) wrote poems about them.

While their respect for each other as artists was deep, Shostakovich and Akhmatova were very dissimilar people and Testimony's reminiscences of the poetess are wry with faint amusement over her famously cultivated mystique. Remembered by all who knew her as the most dignified person they ever met, she moved through the flustered shallows of modernity with the anachronistic grace of a Renaissance galleon. Shostakovich's iconoclastic streak, however, prevented him from viewing Akhmatova's majestic demeanour without irony and, while he prized the serene translucence of her language, he was unable to share her Christian acceptance of suffering. Intellectually, he had more in common with her sister in verse Marina Tsvetaeva who, like him, had Polish blood, identified with the Jew as a fellow outsider, and was restlessly preoccupied with death.

Banned in the USSR between 1922 and 1956, Tsvetayeva's work came to Shostakovich's attention only in his sixties, whereupon he marked his belated acquaintance with it by writing the Six Romances, Opus 143, of 1973. The last and longest of these, To Anna Akhmatova, is based on a poem saluting a uniquely stately and incorruptible spirit in words whose turbulence paradoxically draws from Shostakovich a setting of stark gravity. His reverence for Akhmatova, elsewhere tempered by his innate scepticism, is here unequivocal. If, as a satirist, he was essentially as foreign to her as their mutual friend Mikhail Zoshchenko (whose supremacy in the domain of prose she conceded with awe), as a tragedian he was very close to her and To Anna Akhmatova remains one of his most solemn and imposing musical monuments. (His only explicit memorial to her, it quotes the first movement of the Second Violin Concerto, suggesting that something of her is likewise to be found in that unsung creation of 1967. More Akhmatovian meditations may figure in the similarly neglected Second Cello Concerto, written soon after her death in 1966.*)

For her part, Akhmatova shared the misgivings of several of Shostakovich's literary friends concerning the quality of some of the texts he chose to set. (Biased to the vernacular, he was intrigued by the poignant and ironic aspects of artlessness; in Testimony, he records with a patient shrug her fastidious disapproval of the "weak words" of From Jewish Folk Poetry. According to Anatoli Naiman, her actual pejorative was "kitsch" and her anger on the subject unassuageable.) Despite this, her poet's hypersensitive ear made Akhmatova highly susceptible to music and she seems to have heard in Shostakovich's work a clear enough continuity with her favourite composers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin) for any reservations about his general outlook to be of little account to her. Taking a more mysterious -- if not religious -- view of inspiration than he could, she perhaps saw deeper into him than he himself did.

On the subject of inspiration, Akhmatova's sense of a sublime, causative "music" immanent in the lines of her verse -- a sense very much shared by Osip Mandelstam -- is nowhere more apparent than in her incantatory Poem Without A Hero, commenced in 1940 and thereafter endlessly revisited by her for the purpose of fine tuning. Approving the poet Mikhail Zenkevich's description of the Poem as a "Tragic Symphony" and herself twice exploring its potential as a ballet scenario, she clearly found the boundaries between her text and the media of abstract sound and movement pregnantly vague. Dense with shadowy allusions, Poem Without A Hero is of special interest to Shostakovich students for its characteristically manifold reference to "my Seventh" (II, ix), usually held simultaneously to concern Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, Beethoven's Seventh (her favourite), and her own ill-fated "Seventh Book" of poems. The cause of Akhmatova's particular attachment to Shostakovich's Seventh is unknown, though the likeliest explanation is that her sentiment was based on a feeling of identity with the symphony's fate. According to the latest Soviet scholarship, she bore the manuscript of its first movement on her lap when evacuated by plane from Leningrad on 29 September 1941 -- implying that Shostakovich, who left the city three days later, had ensured himself against bad luck and enemy anti-aircraft guns by entrusting a copy to her. Since he cannot have had time to duplicate the orchestral score, this would seem to have been the piano reduction he played to a small audience in his apartment on September 17. (That being the day on which both he and Akhmatova addressed Leningrad by radio, it seems likely that she was among his guests that evening.)

A rejected draft of the Epilogue of Poem Without A Hero suggests an intriguing alternative: "All of you would have been able to admire me, / when I saved myself from evil pursuit, / in the belly of the flying fish / and flew over lake Ladoga and the forest / as though possessed by the devil / to Brocken like a witch in the night. / And the Seventh, as it called itself, / was after me, its secret sparkling, / rushing to a feast that had never been heard of. / The famed Leningrad / in the guise of a notebook with notes in it / returned into the native ether." (tr. Richard McKane.) Did the "notebook with notes in it" contain Shostakovich's jottings towards his first movement, or was it a complete version in short-score? Inasmuch as he is known to have done most of his composing in his head, the second possibility seems likelier.

The poetess's mission to rescue the symphony from the flames understandably resonated in her mind as a metaphor for the salvation, by individual conscience, of Russian culture. More than a mere symbol, though, the Leningrad assumed for her the significance of a major creative landmark in itself. Anatoli Naiman, a close friend of Akhmatova during the early Sixties, reveals that the musical sub-text of Poem Without A Hero "begins" with Stravinsky's Petrushka and "ends" with Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. Behind this, he explains, lies her vision of the first quarter of the century as being, artistically speaking, "under the sign of Stravinsky" and of its middle years as "under the sign of Shostakovich" (personal communication). While Western literary audiences may find this classification strange, it should be said that Akhmatova seems to have felt music to be a form of supraverbal speech and that her taste in it was, consequently, fairly sophisticated. Her group of pupils and admirers regularly circulated records, mostly of baroque music -- Bach, Vivaldi, and Purcell (Dido and Aeneas being a special enthusiasm) -- while she herself stretched as far as early Schoenberg and even Wozzeck.

Much of what Akhmatova said or wrote possessed a double meaning. Poem Without A Hero, for example, is a masque in which the good and evil of two eras in a single city (the pre-Revolutionary Petersburg of 1913 and the Soviet Leningrad of 1941) confront each other in a hall of mirrors. Conceivably, her idea of musico-astrological "signs" in connection with Stravinsky and Shostakovich is similarly ambiguous. Taking for granted her love for their music, there is room for speculation that she saw these composers as archetypes representing not only the propitious but also the unfortunate sides of their respective epochs. Just as, for instance, Stravinsky's individualism and ironic sense of style epitomise the best of the St Petersburg of Akhmatova's Poem, so the city's dark side stands reflected in his shortcomings: the capricious modishness noted by Schoenberg; the superficiality regretted by Nijinsky ("Stravinsky is a good composer, but he does not know life -- his compositions have no purpose"). In the same way, while the tragic stoicism and undeceivable honesty of Shostakovich accord with what was positive about Leningrad in 1941, his sceptical materialism can be said to represent -- at least to someone of Akhmatova's spirituality -- its inauspicious obverse. Whether, had she lived to hear it, she would have shared her fellow believer Solzhenitsyn's disapproval of Shostakovich's pessimistic Fourteenth Symphony is impossible to say; aesthetically a pantheist, she was broadminded enough to admire the expressive virtuosity of any amount of art whose philosophy she deplored. More to the point is that she would have seen Shostakovich's despair as implicit in his godless outlook -- and that her favourite work of Stravinsky's was the Symphony of Psalms.

*Akhmatova came from Odessa, a city with its own distinctive literary tradition. Playing piano for Rostropovich and Vishnevskya in Zhukovka at New Year in 1966, Shostakovicht turned to an Odessa street-song (see Wilson, p. 394). Two months later, Akhmatova died in Moscow (on 5th March, the thirteenth anniversary of the death of Stalin). Then completing his Eleventh Quartet, Shostakovich immediately afterwards set to work on his Second Cello Concerto in which the Odessa street-song is quoted, mainly in the second movement.

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